And so its opening black-tie gala Thursday night is presenting a challenge: The $50,000-a-table fundraising event is at the Trump hotel.
Officials at the nonprofit museum say the decision was for pragmatic, scheduling reasons but some museum employees and academic consultants refused to enter the hotel affiliated with the controversial president.
“I would rather not do things that optically look like we’re aligning with politics. I would prefer we not make those choices, but they’ve done it,” said one, noting that the political and religious views of the staff and advisers vary widely.
Museum officials said by the time they started looking for space, about a year ago, the Trump hotel was the only ballroom available in Washington that could accommodate such a big group. The Thursday dinner gala will have about 750 people in attendance.
“We looked at several places to accommodate our numbers and that was the only place available for our date,” Steven Bickley, vice president of the museum, said last week during a tour at the museum. “We were looking for a venue, not a statement.”
According to Destination D.C., the city’s marketing organization, of the top 10 hotel ballrooms in the city, Trump is the eighth in terms of size. Danielle Davis, a spokeswoman for the group, said she couldn’t confirm the availability schedule for other ballrooms but said in some cases ballrooms are booked years in advance.
Linda Koldenhoven, director of women’s initiatives at the museum and co-chair of the Grand Opening Committee, said officials also wanted an elegant kind of look. “We wanted it to be beautiful, and [the Trump hotel space] is beautiful, and available. It was the only thing available.”
The least expensive seat for Thursday’s gala is $2,500 for a single seat or $25,000 for a table of 10, according to the ticket. Other perks are offered for donors of $50,000, $100,000 or $250,000, such as tickets to see the Broadway musical “Amazing Grace” in the museum’s new theater, tickets to the Friday dedication, a VIP reception and photo opportunity. Those donated funds will go to the museum, and museum officials declined to say how much they were paying to rent the space. Hotel profits at such events, however, come also from the hotel room rentals, and those attending the gala — if they booked at least two weeks ago — could get rooms for rates ranging from around $524 to $5,699 per night.
The museum also has a brand new ballroom that seats 420 for dinner. Organizers are hosting a second black-tie gala Friday night there that will have a similar entertainment line up as Thursday, including appearances by gospel stars CeCe Winans and Wintley Phipps.
For some involved with the museum, the decision to host at the Trump hotel highlights the question of how the museum will engage with the increasingly politicized debate about the Bible and religion in American public life.
“There’s a tendency and pressure to get involved politically and that’s not our agenda — we don’t want [the museum] to become a political football,” Steve Green, president of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby and chairman of the museum board, said during a recent interview at the museum when asked about its leadership’s stance on
political appearances — from the hotel gala to potential lectures and exhibits or public statements the museum might have. “I think that is where it would be easy for people to come and want us to give those kinds of answers but that’s not our role. The theological weeds or the political weeds — we don’t have time.”
A museum spokeswoman said as of Tuesday that neither Trump nor Vice President Michael Pence would attend the galas or the private, official dedication Friday of the museum, a dramatic structure with cutting-edge technology, amusement park-
type rides and thousands of biblical artifacts. Pence had been invited to do the official ribbon-cutting “because he is a personal friend of a number of board members,” but wasn’t able, said Susan Davis, head of the communications firm handling the opening.
Leadership of both the House and Senate from both parties were invited, and all declined, Davis said. All members of the administration were invited, and as of Wednesday she expected Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and possibly Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
A list of participants in the Friday dedication includes remarks from Washington’s mayor, Democrat Muriel E. Bowser. Also offering remarks are Washington Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl, a cardinal; Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, a Conservative movement rabbi in Maryland and president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America; Adm. Margaret Kibben, chief of the U.S. Navy chaplains; U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black; Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer; Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, and museum officials. Winans will perform.
Koldenhoven, who works with Susan Davis as well, said connections are warm between the current White House and the museum.
“They’re very happy to have us here,” she said during the interview. Being friends with some in the Cabinet, she hears them mention that “it’s nice to have something here getting people back to the basics, the Ten Commandments, having people engage in God’s word.”
Green in several recent interviews about the museum has praised the Trump administration, including this week while talking with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“We are seeing that the current administration with President Trump is a friend of religious freedom and has taken steps to strengthen and confirm that we are a nation that values the freedoms our founders gave us,” he said after being asked about Trump.
Some Americans have praised the administration for promising to do more for Christians persecuted in the Middle East and pushing to protect the ability of religious opponents of LGBT equality to discriminate based on their spiritual convictions as part of what they argue are their Constitutional rights. Others have lamented the administration’s push for immigration restrictions aimed at Muslims and its hesitation to condemn Nazi marchers, among other things.
While the opening of any major museum in Washington is closely watched, many large museums are Smithsonian-run and thus administered by the government. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, participated in last year’s opening ceremony of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History of Culture, as did former president George W. Bush; Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., chancellor of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents; and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a prominent civil rights figure and a Democrat from Georgia. Davis’s firm was involved in the opening of the Holocaust museum in 1993, and she said she recalls controversy and even protests about the appropriateness of commemorating an event on the Mall that didn’t happen in the United States.
“This feels to me a little tamer than other things we’ve been involved with,” she said.
The Bible museum’s leadership has said it doesn’t want to get involved in politics — Vice President Steven Bickley on a media tour last week said: “We’re Switzerland.” However, the museum chose D.C. in part for its proximity to government and conversations about religion in public life. One of its marquis exhibits is called “Washington Revelations,” in which visitors stand on a moving ride that simulates flying over the city to see biblical quotes on monuments and other government buildings.
The museum also has as a core aim to prove — and spur discussion around — the Bible’s relevance to American public and political life, and the news hooks these days are constant: Roy Moore and his argument that his view of the Bible should be the basis of U.S. law, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt citing the Bible in his decision to upend the rules around who is allowed to sit on EPA advisory groups, Trump adviser-pastor Robert Jeffress saying the Bible gives Trump the authority to eliminate the North Korean president — those all have come up in just the last few months.
It remains to be seen how the museum will publicly engage with political issues once it’s open — whether it will hold public events or exhibits on Bible-related issues in public life, and what its approach will be. Or if it will try focus more on earlier eras and the ancient past.
Carlos Campo, a board member and president of Ashland University, said holding events and lectures and discussions related to the news and having leadership speak on current political events would be “secondary” to the museum’s mission.
Even if you take the case of Roy Moore, “you see some people who are faithful teachers and experts have taken fairly divergent views, so it’s reflective of the idea: Let the Bible speak for itself and don’t interpret.” An event on something like Moore “wouldn’t interest us, although the idea of American views of the Bible” does, he said.
Gordon Campbell, a Renaissance Studies scholar who is one of the world’s experts on the King James Bible, has been advising the museum for several years on its exhibits. While he plans to attend Thursday’s gala at the Trump hotel, he is watching carefully to see how the museum’s leadership balances itself politically.
“The Green family stand for a series of political and religious positions that are on one side of the cultural divide. They’re absolutely entitled to those views but it would be unhelpful if the museum were to be associated with those views,” he said this week.
Museum leadership has also worked hard to show it wants to be seen as nonsectarian, more of an open place to explore the Bible than to be evangelized — sort of a counter to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which argues that the Earth is just a few thousand years old. Cary Summers, the Bible Museum’s president, was a consultant on the Kentucky museum as well.
The museum board is made up almost exclusively of conservative evangelicals (mostly white males), and the museum projects an implicit and religious reverence for the Bible. However officials have reached out to and hired a diverse group of scholars and consultants and shifted the museum’s focus to a more academic, ecumenical — if still pious — approach to the Bible.
According to financial documents and reporting by The Washington Post, the primary donors to the museum are the Green family and the National Christian Foundation.
The Greens are best-known for their craft store chain, which sued the Obama administration successfully in the Supreme Court, saying the Affordable Care Act violated their religious freedom rights because it required providing employees with types of birth control that they see as murder. The Greens are heroes to many religious conservatives as a result. The foundation is a donor-advised fund with a mission to “advance God’s Kingdom” that distributes millions to many groups engaged in court fights against same-sex marriage, abortion rights and other social policies, the Post reported.
One of the museum’s donors, speaking on the condition that they not be named so as not to upset museum leadership, said the decision not to hold the Thursday gala at the brand new museum — and instead at the Trump hotel — didn’t make sense entirely. “It seemed to me you’d want to show off the museum,” the person said. “I almost don’t want to know why we’re there.”
Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.
This story has been updated.